Critical valleys in drought and key issues

Climate overview

Most of NSW is still experiencing severe drought.  At the end of 2019 we had seen up to three years of drought across the entire state worse than the 1940s drought or the Millennium drought in many areas. Combined with a growing population, the climate is putting unprecedented pressure on the existing water supply in metropolitan and regional NSW.

In 2019 conditions were drier and hotter than any other NSW drought in the last 120 years. From January 2017 to December 2019, rainfall was the lowest on record. The 2017, 2018 and 2019 calendar years were the warmest on record. Despite some rain in January and February 2020, major rural NSW water storages are approximately 23% of capacity (17 February 2020) on average, although some are at 3% or less.

For 2019, the vast majority of NSW received rainfall at least below average and in many parts of the north of the state the lowest on record. For 2020, the first two months has seen high rainfall along the NSW coast. Parts of inland NSW have also seen good falls, but this has not been extensive and is not drought breaking.

All the major inland NSW river systems, except the Murrumbidgee Valley (shown in the map below) are classified in emerging, severe or critical drought stages.

Drought stages summary, February 2020

Northern basin overview

The areas experiencing the worst effects of this drought are the northern Murray-Darling Basin and the Lower Darling. Inflows to each of the major northern inland NSW regulated rivers were the lowest on record in 2019. Northern NSW has experienced many two-year periods of sustained low inflows. 2019 saw an unprecedented third year of drought, with drought continuing to affect most of the state in early 2020.

Major storages in all the northern inland NSW remain at critically low levels. There was no significant winter or spring rainfall in 2019 resulting in inflows, and inflows in ealry 2020 into the storages have not been significant.

Any new inflows to the northern basin since early-2018 have been preserved for high priority needs, consistent with water sharing plan rules and the NSW Extreme Events Policy.

River and overland flows in the Northern Basin in January and up to the end of February 2020 resulting from localised rainfall events have been protected from most commercial extraction. These restrictions ensured that critical town, domestic and stock and refuge pools could be replenished and with the aim of connecting river systems for the first time for many years. As a result of these restrictions, flows are now predicted to reach Menindee Lakes from late March 2020 and provide sufficient water for a much-needed release long the full length of the Lower Darling. View more information on the Northern Basin restrictions.

How we’re responding

In light of these unprecedented conditions, the NSW government is responding in a range of ways to support those most affected by water shortages:

1.     Clearer policy direction

2.     On-ground measures

  • Construction of emergency infrastructure works, such as temporary weirs, pipelines and access to lower levels in storages to extend town water and other high priority supplies for as long as possible
  • Changes to river system operations to preserve remaining supplies for critical human water needs
  • A coordinated approach across government to mitigate poor water quality and fish death events, including emergency response planning, increased monitoring, artificial oxygenation and fish relocation
  • Appointment in January 2019 of the Regional Town Water Supply coordinator to ensure every regional town in NSW has safe, clean drinking water
  • Establishment in November 2019 of the Office of Drought Response to better coordinate support delivered by all NSW Government agencies for farmers, communities, businesses and towns affected by drought
  • In total, the NSW Government has committed $2 billion to its Drought Emergency Relief Package including:
    • $210 million in emergency assistance for towns for infrastructure such a bores and water carting if necessary
    • Interest free or low interest loans to farmers for water and other on-farm infrastructure
    • Transport subsidies for primary producers for transport of stock, feed and water
    • Waiving a range of government fees, including fixed water charges
  • Details of NSW Government Emergency Relief funding provided to local water utilities can be viewed in the interactive map.
  • The Government has also committed $1 billion to the Safe and Secure Program for longer term water security and sewerage projects for regional towns.

3.     Better communication and coordination

Drought-affected valleys

An overview of the situation in each valley as at 17 February 2020 is described in the tables below.  You can also download a high resolution version of the map (JPG 6.2 MB).

Lower Darling 
Drought Stage

Stage 4 - Critical drought

Stage 4 critical water shortage

Storage Level
  • Menindee Lakes less than 1% (6GL) of active capacity.
Allocations
  • Zero for general security in 2019/20, all carryover suspended.
  • Last general security allocation made in 1 July 2017.
  • Reduced allocations announced for high priority (town, domestic and stock) and high security (permanent plantings) needs – but water will not be able to be delivered in 2019/20 until inflows occur.
Actions
  • Restrictions on access to river and overland flows across the entire Northern Basin in January/February 2020 is expected to result in some 60 to 80 GL entering Lake Wetherell from late March - the first substantial volume of natural inflows into the Lakes for three years.
  • Temporary water restriction put in place on 4 December 2018 in the Lower Darling limiting water extraction to high priority needs only. This continues.
  • Four block banks constructed in river in 2018 to pool water for stock and permanent plantings. Water pools are now very low and effectively empty in some cases.
  • Pipeline from Murray River to supply Broken Hill began operation in April 2019.
  • Water carting is in place for domestic water for some landholders not connected to town supplies.
  • Releases ceased in the Lower Darling once the block banks were filled in January 2019.
  • DPI Fisheries installed aerators at four locations and three were installed by OzFish and local community in 2019/20.
  • In September 2019, 783 large adult fish were relocated to more permanent water.
  • Valley based technical groups, including government and community representatives, established in the Lower Darling to advise on strategic interventions and priority actions.
  • Aerators installed in Lake Wetherell and other fish refuge pools in Lower Darling.
  • Critical Water Advisory Panel operating.
Issues
  • Fish deaths in December 2018 and January 2019 because of low dissolved oxygen levels.
  • High risk of fish deaths again in summer - small number of deaths in November 2019 and at Wentworth in January 2020.
  • Red alerts for blue-green algae in Lake Wetherell.
  • High risk of algal blooms as weather warms. Red alert for Lake Wetherell.
  • Supply behind block banks is almost exhausted and quality poor.
  • Small flows reached Wilcannia upstream of the Lakes on 15 June 2019 but did not contribute any volume to Menindee Lakes.
  • Once flows enter Lake Wetherell from late March 2020, releases will be made to the Lower Darling. These will need to be carefully planned to manage water quality issues from the re-starting of flows after a lengthy dry period.
Outlook
  • Around 20 to 60 GL is forecast to reach Lake Wetherell in late March. It is expected that 20 GL will be released to replenish the dry riverbed, flush out pools with poor water quality and top up within-channel storages behind temporary weirs. The additional volume will be reserved within Lake Wetherell to provide a water supply reserve for the township of Menindee and a drought refuge if dry conditions return.
  • Substantial further flows will be required upstream in the Barwon-Darling River and tributaries to significantly improve the storage level of the Menindee Lakes which hold 1,600 GL when full.
Barwon-Darling River 
Drought Stage

Stage 4 - Critical drought

Stage 4 critical water shortage

Allocations
  • Allocations announced on 1 July 2019, but water unable to be pumped by irrigators due to temporary water restrictions.
River Level
  • A release of environmental water in autumn/winter of 2018 from the Gwydir and Border Rivers provided flow down to Menindee Lakes.
  • During March to August 2019 small inflows from tributaries, local rainfall and another environmental release - Northern Fish Flow event - restarted flows in some sections and replenished town weir pools and fish refuge pools. Flows did not reach Menindee Lakes.
  • Rainfall in early November 2019 provided flows down the Warrego River and flows over the Bourke town water weir. This was the first time in over 400 days that flows have occurred over the Bourke town weir.
  • Flows re-commenced in parts of the Barwon-Darling River in February 2020 as a result of inflows from the northern catchments which were restricted from extraction across the Northern Basin.
Actions
  • Restrictions placed on pumping from mid-January 2020 to protect inflows from northern catchments for critical needs.
  • Pumping for commercial purposes from the Barwon-Darling River has not been permitted. Restriction on A, B, C class pumping between Culgoa junction and Menindee Lakes commenced on 4 November to 31 December 2019 to protect inflows for critical needs.
  • A restriction on pumping from the lower Namoi River applied on 31 March 2019 allowed some flow to reach Walgett, at the junction with the Barwon River. This restriction was repealed on 6 May 2019.
  • Flows from the Nebine/ Culgoa River reached the Darling River and increased the level of Bourke’s town water supply weir.
  • A request was made to the Queensland Government to allow some high flows to pass Beardmore Dam and to cross the NSW border.  Some flows entered the NSW system and provided water for local needs.
  • The 2019 environmental water release of around 30 GL from Glenlyon Dam in the Border Rivers and Copeton Dam in the Gwydir reached Warraweena on 28 July, but not Bourke - travelling over 1,500 river kilometres.
  • Two aerators installed in the Collarenebri weir pool in collaboration with local fishing club and Aboriginal community.
  • Funding provided to towns for emergency bore supplies and in the case of Walgett and Bourke for works to improve quality.
  • Critical fish refuges pools have been mapped along the Barwon-Darling.
  • Critical Water Advisory Panel - operating.
Issues
  • Barwon-Darling irrigators have not been able to pump any significant water since mid-2017.
  • While flows and rainfall during the year assisted in topping up some town water supply weirs, there were still some sections of the river which did not receive flows in 2019.
  • February 2020 inflows are being protected to ensure that flows occur along the length of the Barwon-Darling and into Menindee Lakes.
  • Towns are also using artesian bore water but experiencing higher sodium levels.
  • NSW Health testing the quality of the artesian water supply for Walgett.
  • Red and amber alerts for blue-green algae along the river.
  • High number of fish deaths in late January 2020 because of drying refuge pools.
Outlook
  • Flows from upstream NSW and Queensland tributaries from February 2020 should provide flows along the full length of the Barwon-Darling for the first time for many years.
Upper and Lower Namoi River 
Drought Stage

Stage 4 - Critical drought

Stage 4 critical water shortage - Lower Namoi.

Stage 4 - Critical drought

Stage 4 critical water shortage - Upper Namoi.

Storage Levels
  • Keepit Dam at increased to 6% (25 GL) in February 2020 from almost empty at the start of 2020.
  • Split Rock Dam at 3% (10 GL).
  • The Namoi Valley has experienced the lowest inflow (worst drought) since 1918.
Allocations
  • Zero for general security in Lower Namoi for 2019/20 and all carryover water suspended.
  • Last Lower Namoi general security allocation made in August 2017.
  • Zero for general security in the Upper Namoi for 2019/20 and suspension of carryover water.
  • Reduced high security allocations for both the Upper and Lower Namoi Valleys, some water being delivered as a result of rainfall runoff in February 2020.
Actions
  • Water transferred from Split Rock to Keepit Dam during 2018.
  • No releases made to Lower Namoi water users during 2019.
  • Natural inflows caused by rainfall in late March 2019 were restricted to town, domestic and stock and high security access only. Some useful flows reached Walgett in April. Restrictions on access repealed on 6 May 2019.
  • Restrictions on access to inflows applied during January and February 2020 limiting access to critical needs.
  • Temporary water restrictions (section 324 order) were placed on water users on 6 December 2019 in the Upper Namoi, restricting access to water to secure town water supplies for Manilla township.
  • Upper Namoi changed from severe to critical drought stage on 7 November 2019.
  • Restrictions on access to inflows applied during January and February 2020 limiting access to critical needs. Flows reached Walgett and entered the Barwon-Darling River on 9 February.
  • Two solar aerators installed in Keepit Dam in 2019.
  • Pian Creek replenishment flow underway in February 2020.
  • Fish refuge pools are being mapped and fish rescues were undertaken during December 2019.
  • Critical Water Advisory Panel operating.
Issues
  • Because of low water levels boating access to Keepit Dam was limited to 2019.
  • Low flows downstream of Keepit Dam and high temperatures contributed to fish deaths in January 2019 and further deaths throughout the system in November 2019 because of very low water availability.
  • Fish deaths around Narrabri, Gunnedah, Carroll and Boggabri in late January/early February 2020 as a result of short sharp rise in river flows.
  • Red alert for blue-green algae in Split Rock Dam and amber alert for Keepit Dam.
Outlook
  • Some good inflows occurred into the dams during February 2020 of around 20 GL.
  • Storages need about 85 GL of inflow before normal regulated river operations can resume.
Macquarie River 
Drought Stage

Stage 4 - Critical drought

Stage 4 critical water shortage.

Storage Levels
  • Burrendong Dam at 2% (24 GL).
  • Windamere Dam at 26% (97 GL).
  • New drought of record – inflows are approximately 1/3 of previous record low inflow.
Allocations
  • Zero for general security for 2019/20 and all carryover water suspended.
  • Last general security allocation made in August 2017.
  • Reduced high priority (town, domestic and stock) and high security allocations for 2019/20.
Actions
  • Initial transfer of water from Windamere to Burrendong Dam in January 2019. The final transfer likely to occur in March 2020 (leaving the agreed 70 GL reserve in Windamere Dam).
  • Environmental flow rules and allocation provisions in the water sharing plan suspended in July 2019.
  • Raising of Warren Weir ceased regulated river flow to the lower river and Duck and Crooked Creeks from October 2019 to prioritise water for towns, including Dubbo, Nyngan and Cobar. Regulated flow in Gunningbar Creek ceased in December 2019.
  • Work underway to enable pumping of storage below outlet works.
  • Restrictions placed on access across the Northern Basin in January/February 2020 to protect storm generated flows for critical needs.
  • Some flows to the lower river and Macquarie Marshes are being provided from tributary inflows as a result of storm generated flows in February 2020. Temporary drought works at Warren Weir, Gunningbar Weir and Duck Creek offtake have been removed to deliver stock and domestic supplies and replenish river pools.
  • The Government has committed $8.3 million for the off-stream storage for Nyngan and Cobar, $2 million for critical maintenance of the Albert Priest Channel which supplies Nyngan and Cobar, $30 million to Dubbo to expand its borefield and $2 million to allow Narromine to access groundwater.
  • Mapping of critical fish refuge pools. In February 2019, 59 endangered Southern Purple Spotted Gudgeons were rescued from drying pools in two creeks in the Macquarie River catchment and relocated to refuge sites, including Taronga Western Plans Zoo. In November 2019 220 fish were relocated to hatcheries or other river areas.
  • New dissolved oxygen sensors were installed in Macquarie River and a large bubble plume aerator at Burrendong Dam in 2019 to improve the quality of remaining water.
Issues
  • Environmental account water will not be able to be released from the dam until storage conditions improve.
  • Fish deaths in the Macquarie river near Wellington, Dubbo and below Warren and in Cudgegong River in January/early February 2020 as a result of short sharp rises in river levels from local storm events.
  • Red alerts for blue-green algae in Windamere and Burrendong dams.
Outlook
  • Recent downstream inflows in early 2020 have extended critical supplies for a number of months.
  • The river may cease at Dubbo by early 2021 (previously September 2020) if no further inflows occur.
Gwydir River 
Drought Stage

Stage 3 - Severe drought

Stage 3 severe water shortage.

Storage Level
  • Copeton Dam below 9% (123 GL) of active capacity.
Allocations
  • Zero for general security for 2019/20, but all carryover water available.
  • Last general security allocation made in August 2017.
  • Full high priority and high security allocations for 2019/20.
Actions
  • Environmental releases were made in April 2019 to provide flow along the Lower Gwydir and Mehi system into the Barwon-Darling.
  • Environmental releases from October 2019 to January 2020 to improve quality of fish refuge pools.
  • Delivery of water in 2019/20 in block releases to conserve supplies.
  • Restrictions on access across the Northern Basin in January/February 2020 to protect flows for critical needs.
Issues
  • Copeton Dam on red alert for blue-green algae.
  • Fish deaths in late January/early February 2020 near Moree and Bingara as a result of short sharp rise in river flows from localised storms.
Outlook
  • Inflows of about 60 GL are required before a general security allocation can be made.
Border Rivers 
Drought Stage

Stage 4 - Critical drought

Stage 4 critical water shortage

Storage Level
  • Pindari Dam at 7% (21 GL) of active capacity.
  • Glenlyon Dam at 12% (29 GL).
Allocations
  • Zero allocation for general security A and B class for 2019/20, and 50% of carryover water suspended.
  • Last general security B class allocation made in January 2018.
  • Full allocations announced for high priority and high security licence holders, although delivery of water will be limited.
Action
  • Environmental water was released in April/May 2019 to replenish waterholes for native fish along the river and into the Barwon-Darling to Brewarrina.
  • Priority in 2019/20 is to provide for town water supplies, with flows provided in block releases.
  • Final dam releases were made in the Border Rivers to Boggabilla Weir for Boggabilla and Goondiwindi town water supplies in December 2019.
  • Minimum flow releases are being made below Pindari Dam.
  • Restrictions on access across the Northern Basin in January/February 2020 to protect flows for critical needs.
  • Natural inflows from rainfall in early 2020 have replenished weir pools at Boggabilla and Mungindi and contributed over 30 GL to the storages.
Issues
  • Inflows are below average.
  • Dam releases are not able to be made to reach Mungindi.
  • Some fish kills in November 2019 as a result of runoff from bushfire affected areas.
  • Fish deaths in Macintrye and Severn Rivers in January/early February 2020 as a result of short sharp rise in river flows.
  • Red alert for blue-green algae in Pindari Dam and Boggabilla Weir.
Outlook
  • Supply is restricted in 2019/20, carryover water is being delivered from tributary inflows only.
Peel River 
Drought stage

Stage 4 - Critical drought

Stage 4 critical water shortage

Storage Level
  • Chaffey Dam at 14% (14 GL) of active storage.
Allocations
  • No allocation for general security in 2019/20.
  • Last general security allocation made in October 2018.
  • Reduced allocations for high priority (town and domestic and stock) and for high security users, although supply on the Peel River below Dungowan ceased from the start of December 2019.
Action
  • Restrictions on access across the Northern Basin in January/February 2020 to protect flows for critical needs.
  • Water for high priority users below Dungowan is being provided from tributary inflows from storms in January/February 2020.
  • Temporary weirs constructed in the Peel River to extend supply for Tamworth and reduce around 17,000 ML in transmission losses below Chaffey Dam. The Government has committed $3.4 million for these works and $2 million for further supply investigations.
  • Rule in the water sharing plan requiring a minimum daily release from Chaffey Dam suspended on 2 December 2019. Pulse releases for environmental purposes are being made instead to conserve water.
  • Construction of a pipeline from Chaffey Dam to Dungowan is underway to be completed in March 2020 to further conserve water supplies.
  • Government has announced that it will construct a new larger Dungowan Dam.
  • Mixers installed at priority sites in the Peel to improve quality of remaining pools.
Issues
  • Inflows into the dam are low and transmission losses below Chaffey Dam in 2019 were at record high levels.
  • Supply below Dungowan restricted from the start of December 2019 and alternative supply required for downstream commercial users. Inflows from rainfall in January and February 2020 has provided some supplies for high priority users.
  • Some fish deaths in December 2019 below Dungowan as a result of ceasing flows and in January 2020 as a result of poor water quality from storm generated inflows.
Outlook
  • All efforts are being made to extend Tamworth's supply, and following completion of pipeline from Chaffey Dam, town water supplies will be able to be met until 2021 even if inflows cease.
  • Chaffey Dam needs to reach 25% capacity before Tamworth's severe town water restrictions can be eased.
Belubula River 
Drought Stage

Stage 3 - Severe drought

Stage 3 severe water shortage.

Storage Level
  • Carcoar Dam at 12% (4 GL) of active storage.
Allocations
  • Zero for general security for 2019/20 full carryover was initially available but subsequently restricted to 40% on 1 October 2019.
  • Full domestic and stock and high security allocations for 2019/20, although water below Canowindra may not be able to be supplied from regulated releases.
  • Last general security allocation made in December 2016.
Action
  • The end of system flow rule was met only intermittently throughout 2018/19 because of reduced water in storage and tributary inflows.
  • The rule in the water sharing plan was suspended in July 2019.
  • Access to uncontrolled flows not permitted in 2020 to preserve flows downstream into the Lachlan system.
Issues
  • Low inflows into the storage in 2019 and first 2 months of 2020.
  • Dam is a relatively small storage with a maximum capacity of 36 GL.
  • Inflows are only 50% of previous 32 month minimum on record.
Outlook
  • Tributary inflows will be required to meet demands at the end of the system.
Lachlan River 
Drought Stage

Stage 3 - Severe drought

Stage 3 severe water shortage.

Storage Level
  • Wyangala Dam at 13% (154 GL) of active storage.
Allocations
  • Zero for general security in 2019/20 and carryover restricted to 57%.
  • Last general security allocation made in August 2017.
  • Full town and domestic and stock allocations, but reduced high security allocations to 87%.
Actions
  • Annual replenishment flows completed in 2019 to provide domestic and stock water.
  • Water Quality Allowance was released in January/February 2019 to reduce issues with blue-green algae outbreaks in the lower Lachlan.
  • Environmental water was delivered to Booligal Swamp in June, Booberoi Creek from June to August and mid Lachlan wetlands from July 2019.
  • Environmental release from Wyangala Dam commenced in September 2019.  This provided water into Booberoi Creek, topped up Brewster weir pool and arrived in the Great Cumbung Swamp in mid November 2019.
  • Replenishment flows to lower Lachlan creeks ceased from 8 December 2019 and flows to the Willandra Creek system ceased between December 2019 and March 2020.
  • If dry conditions continue, top up flows to offset evaporation in Lake Cargelligo may need to cease from March 2020. This will extend remaining supplies in Wyangala Dam for towns.
  • Water Quality Allowance is being delivered in the Lower Lachlan in February 2020 to assist with maintaining end of system flows and to improve water quality.
  • Assistance is being provided to Cowra and Condobolin to access groundwater supplies.
Issues
  • Inflows into the Lachlan normally occur in winter/spring. Minimal inflows occurred in 2019  – close to the record minimums.
Outlook
  • Over 200 GL of inflow is required to enable a general security allocation to be made.
Murray River 
Drought Stage

Stage 2 - Emerging drought

Stage 2 emerging water shortage.

Storage Level
  • Dartmouth Dam is at 46% (1750 GL) - shared resource.
  • Hume Dam is at 17% (591 GL).
Allocations
  • No general security allocation for 2019/20, although full carryover water is available.
  • Last general security allocation made in March 2018.
  • Full high priority and maximum security allocations (97%) provided, although conveyance allocations are 45.5%.
Actions
  • Drought operational planning is underway for 2019/20.
  • Environmental releases made in August and September 2019.
  • Conveyance allocations reduced, but have been increasing with inflows.
  • Commonwealth released environmental spring flow starting in August for 2 weeks and then September 2019 for 6 weeks. The flow was designed to water the Barmah-Millewa and Koondrook Perricoota Forests and provide flow through the system to the Lower Lakes.
  • Environmental water deliveries continue in 2020 to meet environmental objectives.
Issues
  • The resources of the Murray River are shared between NSW, Victoria and South Australia.
  • The River Murray system as a whole experienced 'near extreme' dry inflow conditions for 2018/19 and 'very dry' inflow conditions for 2019/20.
  • Red and amber blue-green algae alerts in Hume Dam and along the river.
Outlook
  • High priority and carryover water should be able to be met in 2020.

Critical issues

Algal blooms are occurring across the state and contributing to fish kills in a number of areas. Algal blooms impact on the use of river water and dams for recreation and impact on aquatic life. Towns also need to provide additional water treatment for water affected by algae.

For the latest algal alerts go to WaterNSW.

Information on the location of fish kills in NSW and the likely causes is available from the Department of Primary Industries

The department’s temporary water restrictions protect essential supplies and environmental releases.

Drought conditions have led most NSW rural towns to impose some level of water restrictions. Information on specific town restrictions are available from the local councils' websites or can be searched on the website of the Bureau of Meteorology.